The life of a cattle thief

2008-04-29 00:00

While driving through the Umzimkulu valley on my way towards Kokstad on a clear autumn morning, I suddenly realised that I was driving through the famous opening paragraph of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, through what he calls “one of the fairest valleys of Africa”. He describes the view in biblical cadences: “Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand.”

However, I was driving through the wrong book. I wasn’t out to do a story on Paton but on another author and another book: Frank Brownlee and his novel Cattle Thief, recently re-issued as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Set in the Eastern Cape and the Transkei, Cattle Thief was published in 1929, originally under the title Ntsukumbini, the thief of the title who, according to Brownlee, “lived on the banks of the Umzintlanga River at the foot of a high rocky koppie”.

“His homestead consisted of four round thatched huts with a large cattle fold. The kraal is surrounded and almost hidden by mimosa trees. On the rocky heights above, stately aloes grow. From the vantage point of the koppie’s crest, Ntsukumbini could observe the country for many miles about and keep a watch on the approach of inquisitive people who might wish to interfere with his business. It was here in his declining years that he related to me the experiences related in the following pages.”

Which all implies that Ntsukumbini was a real person. He wasn’t, but his tale is authentic enough. Brownlee’s job as magistrate brought him into close contact with the local people and, like a Transkeian equivalent of Natal’s James Stuart, he collected oral histories and built up an invaluable record of the Xhosa people and their history.

In Cattle Thief, Ntsukumbini relates the story of his life, one steeped in the traditions and skills of a profession passed on from father to son. We follow Ntsukumbini through the rituals of youth and his induction into the family trade: outwitting the authorities, running stolen cattle to Lesotho. Adulthood sees him going to work on the gold mines and eventually, after several adventures, returning to his rural home. Although the story is written in a deceptively simple style, a contemporary reviewer correctly noted that it “holds one with its directness and dramatic power”.

Cattle Thief also reads with a powerful contemporary resonance as stock theft is still a major concern in southern KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and Transkei, and Brownlee’s book provides an uncanny insider’s view of a profession both ancient and modern.

Apart from a Brownlee Street in Kokstad, I could find no latter-day traces of the author. Displays in the East Griqualand Museum give the history of the area, much of which is reflected in Cattle Thief and, more especially, Brownlee’s previously unpublished novella Chats with Christina, which was completed shortly after World War 2 and deals with the period of his father’s term as chief magistrate of East Griqualand from 1878 to 1884. This appears for the first time in the new Penguin edition of Cattle Thief.

Both texts have been edited by Stephen Gray who also provides a biographical background from which I will now proceed to plunder. Brownlee was born in 1875, the seventh son of parents of Scottish missionary stock long associated with the Transkei Territories. His grandfather, the Xhosa linguist John Brownlee, had arrived in 1816 and founded King William’s Town.

Born in Cape Town where his father, Charles Pacalt Brownlee, was the secretary for Native Affairs, Brownlee grew up among writers. His father and his mother, Frances, as well as his elder brother, William, wrote accounts of the frontier events they witnessed.

Educated at Dale College and at the Lovedale Institution, Brownlee entered the Department of Justice of the Cape Civil Service in 1893, served with the British forces at the Battle of Paardeberg (1900) during the Anglo-Boer War and became the Railway Protector of Natives in 1903. During World War 1 he was appointed the military governor of Grootfontein in the former German colony of South West Africa, from which he began publishing articles in anthropological and historical journals. He married Susanna Hobson and in turn had several sons.

Following the family tradition, Brownlee also held magistrate’s posts in Eastern Cape towns, compiling the Historical Records of the Transkeian Native Territories in 1923. Thereafter, while resident in Butterworth — one of 27 magisterial districts, of 418 square kilometres in extent with a population of 25 000 — he began collecting oral histories.

In 1934, he was appointed to Pretoria as the Union’s President of the Native Appeal Court.

With his retirement in 1935, Brownlee contributed prolifically to the local press, and placed many stories overseas as well. He also encouraged other writers, for instance in 1935 contributing a preface to H. I. E. Dhlomo’s play about the Xhosa Cattle killing episode, The Girl who Killed to Save, which features his own parents as characters.

Brownlee’s first novel was published by Jonathan Cape in London as Ntsukumbini (1929) and re-issued in the Life and Letters Series under the new title Cattle Thief (in 1932 and thereafter). Corporal Wanzi, his collection of stories, appeared in 1937, with many of them becoming anthology favourites, while his gathering of Native Folk Tales from South Africa, Lion and Jackal (1938), also went into several impressions.

The publication of Cattle Thief (and Chats with Christina in the same volume) brings Brownlee to a new generation of readers.

As representative of an earlier generation, let Paton have the last word: “I would be the first to recognise the qualities of Frank Brownlee’s Cattle Thief, an authentic and distinguished work.”

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